At top, bird bander David Yeany holds a recently banded female red-winged blackbird at Frick Park on Migratory Bird Day, 14 May 2022.
On 17 May we looked for warblers along Nine Mile Run’s boardwalk and found many black walnut flowers fallen on the railing.
I would have brushed this one away until I saw an insect hiding on it. Do you see the juicy caterpillar, below? This is warbler food!
In Schenley Park a carpenter ant examined fading pawpaw flowers that smell like rotten meat, if they smell at all. No rotting meat here. She left.
Mystery flower of the week was a non-native with thin basal leaves found blooming in the woods in Frick Park. How did star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum sp.), a native of southern Europe and southern Africa, get into the woods? Is it invading?
Many of us are familiar with horsetail (Equisetum) because it looks so unusual. Its hollow stems are ridged and jointed and grow in dense clumps as much as three feet tall. None of the stems have apparent leaves but some have a knob on top, a stobilus, that produces spores for reproduction.
Equisetum is so weird because, as Wikipedia explains, it “is a living fossil, the only living genus of the entire subclass Equisetidae, which for over 100 million years was much more diverse and dominated the under-story of late Paleozoic forests. Some equisetids were large trees reaching to 30 m (98 ft) tall.”
251.9 million years ago the Permian–Triassic extinction event wiped out all the Equisetidae except for Equisetum which is now 359 million years old, older than the dinosaurs.
The hybrid grows stobilus knobs that make spores, but the spores are sterile. And yet the plant persists.
Equisetum species have two methods of reproduction: sexually via spores and asexually by spreading rhizomes in clonal colonies. The hybrid can only spread asexually but that’s enough to keep it thriving in limited locations.
In early April in Frick Park I noticed many woody saplings leafing out ahead of all the other plants. They were everywhere sporting dark green pleated leaves while the rest of the woods were brown. They looked invasive. I took a picture.
In early May the older ones started to bloom. Viburnum. But which one?
Viburnums are hard to identify so I asked my friends from the Botanical Society of Western PA, Mark Bowers and Loree Speedy, who identified it as Japanese snowball (Vibrunum plicatum) and remembered it from a survey in Frick Park a few years ago.
When Frick Park was established in 1919 its grand entry was landscaped with beautiful plants from around the world, available from catalogs such as this one from 1910 showing Viburnum plicatum var Tomentosum.
The plant looks good in the catalog and even better in person. For over 100 years it’s been thriving and spreading in the park.
The first week of May was full of new flowers, leaves, birds and insects. Here are just a few of many sightings.
The ground in Schenley Park is dotted with abundant clusters of cream colored leafless flowers poking up like corn cobs beneath the oaks. Conopholis americana is a parasite on oak roots so we never see the plant itself, only the flowers. Fortunately it doesn’t harm the trees.
Formerly known as squaw root, Conopholis americana has many alternate common names. The accepted name now is “American cancer-root” but that sounds scary and can be misleading. I prefer “bear corn” because it looks like a corn cob and bears do eat it.
While the bear cone bloomed below them, the oaks flowered and leafed out above. This drew in migrating birds to eat the insects that hatch among the leaves.
May’s tiny green caterpillars are too small for me to photograph but here’s what they look like in June, munching on an oak leaf. This is warbler food!
At mid level in Schenley Park the pawpaws (Asimina triloba) opened their bell-like flowers.
Chickweed (Stellaria sp.) was a puzzle without my Newcomb’s Guide. Which one is this? To me the petals look too long for common chickweed, too short for great/star chickweed but the lower leaves have long stalks which says “common” to me.
Unfortunately yesterday’s gusty winds presaged today’s rain and colder temperatures for the week ahead. (Snow in the sky on Tuesday?!) The flowers at Raccoon may be delayed again.
Meanwhile weeds will not be phased by the change in weather. Look at the sidewalk’s edge to find bird’s-eye speedwell (Veronica persica), a native of Eurasia. I found this one near the feeders at Frick Park. Bird’s eye indeed!
We’re used to the idea that flowers smell sweet but did you know that some twigs and buds have scents too? Scratch and sniff to find these three.
Spicebush (Lindera sp.) stands out right now with yellow flowers in balls along the branches. Scratch and sniff the twig, as I am doing above. It smells like spice, almost nutmeg.
Before this tree leafs out, scratch and sniff a bud on a bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis). It smells like lemons.
Juniper berries (Juniperus sp.) are a favorite food of cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) on spring migration. Last week I found 40 of them feasting at the junipers near CMU’s Morewood Gardens parking lot.
Scratch or crush a berry. It smells like gin. … Or so they say. I haven’t smelled gin in years because I don’t like it.